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Sotheby's Has Record Auction With Works By Giacometti, Van Gogh

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

There were gasps on the Upper East Side of Manhattan last night in the Sotheby's building. The auction house was holding its sale of Impressionist and modern art, and a record was broken. Sales topped more than $422 million, the highest single auction take in the company's history. As NPR's Elizabeth Blair tells us, well over a third of that amount came in for just two works of art.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Alberto Giacometti and Amedeo Modigliani with the big sellers at Sotheby's last night. Giacometti's Chariot sold for over $100 million. It's a masterful example of the artist's interest in themes of alienation and existentialism. An elongated figure of a woman stands on a small platform atop two oversized wheels.

Works by Giacometti rarely come to auction. In 2010, his sculpture Walking Man sold for $104.3 million. Marion Maneker, who writes the "Art Market Monitor" blog says that's why Sotheby's could set the price so high.

MARION MANEKER: Sotheby's bought the Giacometti from the consignor, a Greek collector who held it for 40 years. And they convinced him that this was the right time to sell, in part by guaranteeing him a minimum price.

BLAIR: There was only one bidder. The Modigliani that sold last night was an African-inspired stone carving of a woman's head. Primarily a painter, this is one of only about 25 sculptures he created. It sold for more than $70 million - considerably higher than Sotheby's estimate. Bidders were from all over the world. A floral still-life by van Gogh also exceeded its estimate, selling for almost $62 million to a private collector in Asia. Simon Shaw of Sotheby's says, yes, these prices might seem extraordinarily high to most of us, but not to serious art collectors with extremely deep pockets.

SIMON SHAW: These are real last-chance, saloon opportunities. The price is somewhat immaterial, I mean, if one recognizes the fact that one will probably never have another opportunity to acquire such a great sculpture by Giacometti or Modigliani again.

BLAIR: Between Sotheby's and Christie's, there's an estimated $1.6 billion worth of art for sale this week and next. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.